Uganda-DRC border point on high alert over Ebola outbreak

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    The Mpondwe border post is on high alert after a family with suspected Ebola entered Uganda from Congo (AFP Photo/ISAAC KASAMANI)

    Mpondwe (Uganda) (AFP) – At the bustling Mpondwe border post, a woman crossing from the Democratic Republic of Congo into Uganda is whisked away to an isolation unit after a thermal scanner picks up her high temperature.

    Health workers keep Mulefu Kyakimwa, a 32-year-old vegetable oil trader, under observation but later discharge her, once Ebola has been ruled out as the cause of her fever.

    The border post is on high alert after a family with suspected Ebola escaped isolation on the Congolese side and entered Uganda, where two of them died this week.

    The spread of the deadly virus to Uganda comes after months of efforts in a region of porous borders to contain an outbreak in Congo which has killed 1,400 people, according to the latest official data.

    “Since the start of the outbreak, the total number of cases is 2,084, of which 1,990 have been confirmed and another 94 are probable,” the Congolese health ministry said in its daily bulletin from Wednesday.

    “In all, there have been 1,405 deaths — 1,311 confirmed and 94 probable — and 579 people have recovered,” the bulletin said, adding that 132,679 people had been vaccinated.

    – ‘We expected it’ –

    Few people seem to be surprised that Ebola would eventually make its way to Uganda — which has experienced outbreaks in the past.

    “The outbreak is not a surprise. We expected it. People cross the borders all the time and interact a lot,” said Dorcus Kambere, a 29-year-old Ugandan bar attendant who feels her job puts her at risk.

    At Mpondwe — where 25,000 people cross daily — travellers undergo rigorous health checks to detect the lethal virus, which attacks the organs and leads to internal and external bleeding.

    Soldiers carrying automatic rifles guide travellers through the screening process, making sure they wash their hands with disinfectant.

    The travellers then pass through a shelter with a thermal scanner that feeds people’s body temperatures into a computer.

    “This is a situation we go through every day since the Ebola outbreak,” said Ambrose Nyakitwe, 34, a Ugandan trader returning from the Congo side.

    “It is good. I have a family. I have to see that they don’t get affected,” he added, after passing through the scan.

    Outside the busy border post, business carries on as usual, with children swimming and playing in the muddy Lhubiriha river that draws a natural boundary between the two nations.

    – ‘Not safe’ –

    A woman serves pancakes with her bare hands from a bucket as pot-bellied money changers lounging next to her carry out their trade.

    However, while some carry on seemingly oblivious to the dangers posed by the virus, others are increasingly suspicious.

    “It is not safe. If they say people with Ebola crossed into Uganda, how sure are we there are not many who will infect us and are yet to be got?” asked Bernadette Bwiso, 41, a trader.

    “Government must do a house-to-house search,” she said.

    Meanwhile, Nyakitwe is anxious about how the infected patients managed to cross into Uganda despite heightened surveillance.

    A Congolese woman — who is married to a Ugandan — her mother, three children and their nanny had travelled to DRC to care for her ill father, who later died of Ebola.

    The World Health Organization said 12 members of the family who attended the burial in Congo were placed in isolation in the DRC, but six “escaped and crossed over to Uganda” on June 9.

    The next day, a five-year-old was checked into hospital in Bwera vomiting blood. Tests confirmed he had Ebola and the family was placed in an isolation ward.

    His three-year-old brother was also confirmed to have Ebola, as was their grandmother who died late Wednesday.

    Uganda and the RDC are discussing what can be done to intensify collaboration between the two countries to prevent the spread, the Congolese authorities said.

    – No surveillance –

    Uganda’s health ministry said that the surviving travellers and the Ugandan father — five people in total — had agreed to be repatriated to DRC on Thursday for treatment and “family support and comfort” from relatives on the other side of the border.

    However, three unrelated patients are still in a Ugandan hospital awaiting the result of Ebola tests.

    Uganda’s Health Minister Jane Ruth Aceng said challenges remained at “unofficial entry points” between Congo and Uganda, which share a porous 875-kilometre (545-mile) border.

    These unauthorised border crossings, known as “panyas” in the local Lukonzo language, are often merely planks laid down across a point in the river, or through forests and mountains where there is no surveillance.

    In a bid to contain the spread of the disease the Ugandan government has suspended market days and urged people to stop shaking hands and hugging.